The gigantic print version of the Oxford English Dictionary ran into 20 monumental tomes in its second edition, containing 59 million words, their definitions, etymology and instances of first known usage. Given this enormous number, is it possible that errors have crept in?
Most certainly. This hasn’t happened because an indulgent editor nodded approvingly at their inclusion in the hope that a plagiarist would be caught stealing information verbatim from the dictionary (you can’t copyright the use of a dictionary word), but because of outright editorial errors. And, once a word gets into the OED, it never gets taken out.
Here’s the OED’s own take on these words: “Occasionally ‘ghost’ words find their way into dictionaries. Typically these are the result of misreadings of manuscripts or of typographical errors by printers. The Dictionary includes a number of these, labelled as ‘spurious’ entries.”
Some acknowledged entries, with their ‘definitions’, were gofysshe (error for gosysshe, silly, stupid); herebode (army messenger); and minulize (editorial misreading of minutize).
On occasion a spurious word was included as a hoax, admitted or not, on the part of the compiler. One famous fictitious entry that fooled logologists for many years was ‘zzxjoanw’, which appeared as the last entry in The Musical Guide, an encyclopaedia of classical music compiled by Rupert Hughes, who added the following definition:
“zzxjoanw (shaw). Maori. 1. Drum. 2. Fife. 3. Conclusion.”
Naturally word lovers fell all over this delectable morsel of a word. Hughes, one declared, “... presents us with one of the most unbelievable, one of the most intriguing letter combinations ever to claim recognition as a word: ZZXJOANW. This spectacular word is so versatile it possesses not merely one, but three different meanings.” Adding to the allure was its aberrant pronunciation simply as ‘shaw’, in the fine old tradition of Wodehouse’s Featherstonehaugh which, for all its lofty spelling, was simply said as ‘Fanshaw’. Alas, before Scrabble players could join the parade, the word was debunked.